FSA rules ok? The labelling rebellion
heavyweights over nutrition labelling threatens to destabilise the
balance of power between industry and government.
Top food firms and major UK supermarkets will fly the rebel flag this week by officially launching a nutrition labelling system rejected by the country's Food Standards Agency (FSA).
PepsiCo, Nestlé, Kraft and Tesco, among others, have stumped up a £4m war chest to tell consumers why their Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labelling system is better than the traffic light model favoured by the government and a small band of loyalists, led by the Sainsbury's supermarket.
At stake here is more than the health of fat consumers. Nutrition labelling is now a full-on power struggle for public hearts and minds, which may revolutionise the relationship between government and industry.
In the past it has been accepted that if a government authority 'advises' on a particular course of action then those involved would likely heed that advice.
Two years ago, when the food labelling debate began to hit headlines, one FSA spokesperson told me it was believed this principle would be followed in relation to front-of-pack nutrition labelling too.
Large food and drink companies had lobbied to get the GDA system considered more seriously by the government, which it did. But the FSA plumped for traffic light labelling, using red, amber and green to indicate high, medium or low amounts of sugar, fat and salt in different products.
It left the door open by declaring the system voluntary. Officials clearly believed the industry would abide by its final decision - precedent demands it, afterall.
But this time the formula has not worked. Food firms, after raving about GDA for months, are now in open revolt and have unexpectedly been joined by the UK's largest supermarket.
The FSA has misjudged the mood and now faces perhaps the biggest public challenge to its authority since forming in 2000.
If it loses, food and drink firms will have successfully rolled back government influence, potentially increasing their own power in the process. A sceptical public, meanwhile, may brand the FSA forever weak and ineffectual.
The roots of the revolt, ignoring possible FSA mishandling of the issue, are largely that the food and drink industry feels enormously put upon. It has been harangued over salt reductions, advertising, obesity-related diseases as well as safety - each time expected to go the government's way.
There appears to be a sense of 'enough is enough' among industry captains, and nutrition labelling is where they make their stand.
The classic problem with this very public war of words, however, is that neither side can back down easily for fear of losing face. Arguments are polarised and both sides have the usual battery of statistics to fling at each other.
Yet, it does not really serve the food industry's interests to have an FSA, or any regulatory authority, that is left looking weak and impotent.
A weak FSA is only likely to propel the public's existing distrust and cynicism about anything the industry does. Food and drink firms need a strong, independent FSA that can deliver relatively impartial decisions if they are to improve their image with the public.
Pepsi and co should ponder this if they truly intend to stick the knife in over nutrition labelling.
Chris Mercer is editor on BeverageDaily.com and DairyReporter.com. He has also worked freelance for the BBC, Sunday Telegraph and other media. Send any comments to email@example.com.